For Many in France, Mitterrand Lives On

Ten years after his death, France's former socialist president Francois Mitterrand continues to inspire intense devotion — especially in comparison to current President Jacques Chirac.

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The 10-year anniversary of the death of Francois Mitterrand has plunged France into a warm bath of nostalgia for its former president. Polls show that Mr. Mitterrand's popularity ratings are higher than any recent politician, on a par with Charles De Gaulle. While some people loved and others reviled the president who's often been compared to a monarch, Mr. Mitterrand seemed to leave no Frenchman indifferent. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

A decade after the death of France's first Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand is portrayed as the gold standard of French leadership. During his two-term, 14-year hold on power, Mitterrand is credited with elevating the French working class, building a united Europe and abolishing the death penalty. He also expanded France's impressive nuclear program, built the country's high-speed rail network, and decorated the French capital with grand buildings. Jacques Attali was Mitterrand's closest advisor for 10 years.

Mr. JACQUES ATTALI (Advisor to Mitterrand): France love always its past. There is also the nostalgia of a strong presidency, because France was stronger than today, not because France declined but because the president had more power in that time.

BEARDSLEY: Attali says Mitterrand was a power broker in a world still divided by the Cold War when French influence had not yet been weakened by globalization and a more powerful European Union.

But Mitterrand also had his dark side. Just last year, revelations that the secretive and paranoid leader had tapped the telephone lines of newspaper editors and celebrities shocked the nation. And no one has ever been sure of Mitterrand's role in World War II.

Mitterrand biographer, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, says Mitterrand's activities as a Resistance fighter and his connections to Marshal Petain's Vichy regime reflect the ambivalence of many Frenchmen at the time.

Mr. FRANZ-OLIVIER GIESBERT (Mitterrand Biographer): (Through Translator) He wasn't really clean during the Second World War. At one point, he tried to be friends with Petain, with this awful regime was there. And on the other way, at the end, you know, he was resistant. And he has his name in the memoir of de Gaulle. But he was Petainist and Gaullist, like many French.

BEARDSLEY: That dark side is part of the mystique, says Giesbert. Mitterrand's anniversary also coincides with an extremely unpopular current president, Jacques Chirac, and a bitterly divided and leaderless Socialist Party.

(Soundbite of French movie)

Unidentied Man: (Speaking in French)

BEARDSLEY: A plethora of movies, television documentaries, and more than 20 books on Mitterrand in the last year show the public's appetite for stories about the enigmatic late president. While his doctor and psychiatrist have written tell-all accounts, by far the biggest literary sensation was penned by Mitterrand's 30-year old illegitimate daughter, Mazarine Pingeot.

Ms. MAZARINE PINGEOT (Daughter of Francois Mitterrand): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Talking to the media outside Paris City Hall, Pingeot says history has now shown the true value of her father's legacy. He was confident that would happen, she says, and I am moved and very proud. Pingeot is only now assuming a public role. Her existence was revealed just before Mitterrand's death. In a book called Mouth Sewn Shut, Pingeot describes growing up as the secret child of the president of France.

But Mitterrand never abandoned his wife Danielle, and photos of his two families standing at his funeral mesmerized the country. Former advisor Attali says the revelations of a second family seemed only to heighten Mitterrand's popularity.

Mr. ATTALI: And the fact that he wasn't going to say, well, I love two women, that's it, and bold enough to say it before died, people were fascinated by that.

BEARDSLEY: Mitterrandism reached a frenzied peak during January's anniversary of the former president's death. TV news shows led with stories about Mitterrand, and Paris' mayor organized public walks around routes once strolled by the president. Even the Socialist Party's top brass set aside their bickering for one weekend to revel in his reflected glory at Mitterrand's provincial boyhood home and gravesite.

But many politicians on the Right are scornful of what they call the cult surrounding Mitterrand. They point the country's massive debt, bloated civil service, and the 35-hour work week as Mitterrand's legacy. Axel Poniatowski is a leader of the ruling Conservative Party.

Mr. AXEL PONIATOWSKI (Conservative Party, France): We don't think he did lead the country in the right direction. In fact, I think that the beginning of our problems came with Francois Mitterrand's policy, and I think a lot of people just remember some of the good times.

BEARDSLEY: Many French people say that for all his faults, Mitterrand was a powerful president with a clear vision for France. In the last months of his life Mitterrand himself was quoted as saying, I am the last great president. After me will be only financiers and accountants.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley, in Paris.

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